Monday, September 13, 2010

Unity Day USA ceremony in Dallas

Divisive issues hang over Unity Day USA ceremony in Dallas

06:45 AM CDT on Monday, September 13, 2010By JESSICA MEYERS / The Dallas Morning News

In a year when 9/11 commemorations felt as much political as reverential, a North Dallas ceremony the day after the anniversary tried to strip away the tension.

Photos by STEWART F. HOUSE/Special Contributor

Zainab Khurrum (center), 11, of Irving talked to her 10-year-old sister, Hussaina, as they applauded during Sunday's Unity Day USA ceremony at the Unity Church of Dallas. "We're asking people to drop their sub-identity and look to each other as Americans and nothing but Americans," said Mike Ghouse, the president of the Foundation for Pluralism and the event's organizer and founder.

Sunday marked the sixth annual Unity Day USA, an evening ceremony intended to cull something positive from the 9/11 tragedy – a sense of cohesiveness, security and humanity.

Turquoise headscarves, navy turbans and sun-orange robes mixed on stage in the semi-filled sanctuary of Unity Church of Dallas as a handful of civic leaders and religious representatives spoke about the freedom of diversity and the naivete of fear.

"You belong to the country you live in," said Durriya Jamali, adjusting her white headscarf. "I've been here almost half my adult life."

A 43-year old Muslim from India, she's attended Unity Day celebrations since her daughter sang "The Star-Spangled Banner" at the inaugural event. "America is about all people and has nothing to do with religion," she said.

Speakers consolidated their beliefs into one-minute explanations of the "oneness of all religions" preached by Baha'i followers or the "universal oneness" practiced by Vedanta Hinduism devotees. About 100 attendees represented more than 30 religious denominations, including Zoroastrians, Muslims from five sects, and Methodists.

Ghouse had hoped to avoid the divisive issues that hung over this year's formal ceremonies. But they remained an inevitable undercurrent throughout the program.

"Not nearly enough leaders are standing up," said Dallas County Schools president Larry Duncan, referring to objections to an Islamic cultural center near Ground Zero. "I know I am preaching to the choir because you are here. But each of us is standing up to be counted."

The program contained an insert that asked Muslims to pray for the well-being of those who burn the Quran – an indirect nod to the Florida pastor whose threats to destroy copies of the Muslim holy book dominated headlines last week.

"Politics," scoffed Madan Goyal, a 68-year-old Hindu who lives in Plano. "People will try to get whatever advertising they can. This means we can't take anything for granted."

Ghouse envisions a nationwide Unity Day and is making plans for celebrations in 10 cities next year. He said he chose the Sunday after 9/11 to draw a bigger crowd.

"All we can do is raise consciousness so others see people are aware of this," said Len Ellis, president of the Dallas Peace Center. "The alternative is to do nothing, and that's not a good alternative."